Refuge Cay shows signs of regeneration again

Associate editor – features

Thursday, February 14, 2019

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THE mangrove forest at Refuge Cay, which boasts all four of the species endemic to the Caribbean, is showing signs of regeneration after years of choking on garbage washed down from gullies into the Kingston Harbour.

News of the development is contained in a new research paper — Smothered in Plastics The Refuge Cay Rescue — authored by Professor Mona Webber, head of the Centre for Marine Sciences at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and PhD student Camilo Trench who is based at the Discovery Bay Marine Lab.

With funding from Kingston Freeport Terminal Limited (KFTL), the UWI team designed and implemented a rehabilitation programme in 2018 to investigate and diagnose why the forest was compromised and prescribed an intervention. The first step was to clear the garbage, comprised mainly of plastics. That allowed the free flow of water to and from the mangroves. Then they planted some 300 seedlings.

Professor Webber reported that although most of those have died, given that the environment is still harsh, the seedlings which the forest generated on its own “are doing very well”.

The team described the project as a success.

“Some people are sceptical about cleaning plastics when they continue to rain from the Kingston Harbour gullies, and [they say] the futility of the clean-up of a little mangrove cay is wasting money and time, perhaps... We have always had the push back that it's futile to clean up the environment until you solve the plastic problem but we cannot let the forest die and so while we solve the problem, we need to clean the areas,” Professor told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview.

Refuge Cay is part of the Port Royal Mangrove Forest and is located on the harbour side of the Palisadoes road between Norman Manley International Airport and Port Royal. It is home to the black, white, red and buttonwood species of mangroves, which are home to many species of bird including egrets, ibises, frigates, herons; and is a breeding ground for the endangered brown pelican. Other animals such as crabs, oysters, turtles and mongooses also call Refuge Cay home, as do many species of fish for whom it provides a sheltered nursery and feeding ground.

But the cay was dying.

“About 2002 we noticed the forest started to die and 28 per cent of the forest was gone [up to the point of the intervention]. At the rate of progression, we would have lost that cay and therefore lose an important resource. Mangroves are valued at about US$200,000-900,000 per hectare per year, so it [wouldn't] be just an environmental loss, it [would] be an economic loss, and so, we decided to investigate why this cay was dying and we realised the plastics had beached on the edge of the forest and was stopping water flow on and off the forest, literally suffocating the forest,” Webber explained.

“We now see, a year later, a cay that is naturally regenerating,” she continued, adding that she was amazed at how quickly the forest responded.

“You clean a forest, and especially if you have good rain and other conditions, within six months you have regeneration of the forest, so I'm hoping we can get some traction for the rest of the Port Royal mangroves,” Dr Webber said.

It was an expensive venture, with general estimates ranging from US$200 per hectare to about US$200,000, depending on what strategies are required — and Webber hopes to attract financial assistance for other threatened areas.

Mangroves are known to buffer coastlines from storm surges and flooding during hurricanes and other severe weather events. They also act as carbon sinks, sucking large amounts of the climate-warming gas out of the atmosphere and trapping it underground.

“[Refuge Cay] is a small fraction of the problem; there are other mangrove forests out there dying which will need to be cleaned so that we don't lose the forest while the solution to the plastic problem is being dealt with on a larger scale,” she argued, hinting at the ban on plastic shopping bags, styrofoam food containers and plastic straws which took effect on January 1.

“I tell you, we finished the clean-up in March and by April garbage was coming back on the cay, so the solution is not just to clean the environment, but to deal with the social and other issues related to the use and disposal of plastics. We know that the environment will be improved as the pipe is turned off with the plastics flowing,” the professor said.

Webber said data gained and lessons learned from the Refuge Cay project can be applied to other areas, and she indicated the team is conducting further research on the effect of plastics, particularly microplastics, on the health of the marine environment.

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